Take a Few Key Steps To Ensure Executive Coaching Works

By Patricia A. Miller, SPHR, GPHR Aug 7, 2008
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Q: Why does executive coaching work?

A: Executive coaching works when all the stars are aligned. And when it does work, organizations will see a transformational change in their executive’s mindset and behavior. Executive coaching is not a quick fix, however. An executive cannot be sent to a one-day training program and expect a transformation. Rather, executive coaching is a customized, interactive process that is conducted over the course of a few months until the mindset and behavior changes are ingrained.

There are four key components to executive coaching that garner transformational change:

  • An effective coach.
  • Executive buy-in.
  • Organizational buy-in.
  • A comprehensive coaching plan.

Effective Coach

In real estate the mantra is location, location, location. The critical aspect of coaching is rapport, rapport, rapport. An executive coach needs many competencies, but without good rapport between the coach and the executive, no amount of experience, education or certification will cause a transformation of the executive’s mindset and behavior. It is crucial that the executive trusts the coach and feels comfortable with the level of the coach’s in-depth probing. A contract for coaching should not be signed until both parties feel that connection.

A good executive coach will be the catalyst for the process by engaging with the executive to achieve the following:

  • Increased self-awareness. The executive becomes fully aware of his/her strengths, development areas and how others perceive them.
  • Understanding of inner drive. The executive explores his/her values, goals, ambitions and hot buttons and the legacy he or she wishes to leave.
  • Recognition of the relationship between behaviors and inner drive. The executive understands what drives his/her behaviors and how behaviors affect the achievement of personal and organizational goals.
  • Skill development. The executive learns to choose behaviors rather than react to situations.
  • Ownership. The executive becomes independent of the coach and situational issues and accepts responsibility to use new ingrained behaviors for the betterment of achieving personal and organizational goals.
  • Establishment of a trusted feedback network. The executive sets up a network of trusted advisors to gain independent observations that serve to inoculate against “CEO disease,” or a lack of self-awareness and honest feedback.

If a prospective coach offers to jump in and fix the problem without exploring that connection, run, don’t walk, to another coach. Use the following competencies checklist to assess a coach:

  • Knowledge of the coaching process.
  • Expertise in organization and development.
  • Business savvy.
  • Ability to guide the exploration process and stay in control.
  • Ability to identify the issues by being curious, using probing questions and analyzing any underlying agendas or contributing situations.
  • Ability to use positive reinforcement to encourage change initiatives.
  • Ability to use adult learning principles to transfer knowledge and skills.
  • Ability to foster independence.

Every situation requires different competencies. No one package of education, certification, experience or interpersonal skills will be right for every coaching endeavor. An executive who is dysfunctional may need a coach with psychotherapy credentials, but another situation will call for a coach with in-depth business experience. Select a coach with the competencies that fit the particular coaching situation.

Executive Buy-In

Executives scoring low on emotional intelligence tests are not good candidates for coaching. For behavior change to take place, the executive must be open to feedback. Some defensiveness is to be expected, and a good coach can overcome this response in most candidates. Paranoia, extreme anger or other psychological disturbances, however, are signs that executive coaching will not work.

Trust in the coach and the organization is essential. The executive must see the coach as a competent, trusted advisor. To be open and honest, the executive also must trust that what is communicated during the coaching process is confidential and will not be shared with the organization.

In addition, the executive must be willing to commit to the process. Areas of commitment include setting aside time for meetings without cancellation, working on assignments (taking assessments, reading material, role playing, practicing behaviors), being forthright with the coach and communicating any organizational changes or feedback that may influence the coaching process. Commitment includes meshing personal goals with organizational goals.

Organization Buy-In

Organization buy-in is more than paying the coach’s invoices. It starts with an honest assessment of the following questions:

  • Why should this executive receive coaching?
  • Is the coach a trusted advisor?
  • What two or three goals should be set for executive improvement?
  • How much time will be committed to the process?
  • What measurements will confirm executive improvement?
  • Is the organization open to feedback concerning other factors that might be contributing to the executive’s dysfunction?
  • What information will be shared with the coach?
  • Will the organization honor the confidentiality of the process? This is very important.

Comprehensive Coaching Plan

Coaching without a plan is like choosing to drive on a random road without a map. If you don’t know where you are going, how will you know when you get there? A coaching plan can support the communication and understanding that is needed among the organization, coach and executive. In addition, an effective coaching arrangement requires a customized agreement for each individual coaching situation—one that can be amended to address issues as they arise. The following are considerations that should be addressed in a typical coaching plan:

  • To ensure rapport between the coach and executive, develop a written confidentiality agreement that assures anonymity for executives and other contributors of information. Ensure that the confidentiality agreement has an escape clause for any unethical, illegal or harassment/discrimination information that may need to be reported.
  • To ensure communication of progress, develop a written agreement that spells out initial goals, a timeline, fees and invoicing procedures. Appoint a person to receive summary updates and timeframes, and include a clause that notes that the executive will receive a copy of all summary information to maintain the trusting relationship.
  • Require advance approval of all assessments and observations, and state that summary documentation is to be provided to the organization.
  • List what measurements will be used to assess the executive’s improvement, and determine under what circumstances the contract would need to be amended.
  • State what organization documents can be shared during the coaching process, and ask for a confidentiality agreement, if necessary.
  • Include a plan for weaning the executive from the coaching process, and develop a process for future evaluations.

Not every executive is coachable, but those who are deserve to succeed, which they can do by mapping out a strategy that emphasizes coaching competence, executive and organizational buy-in and a coaching plan that maps out what the executive and coach are to achieve and how they are to achieve it. The effort put forth to build this plan will yield positive results for the executive and the organization.

Patricia A. Miller, SPHR, GPHR, is president of the Seven Valleys, Pa.-based organizational development consulting firm P.A. Miller Consulting. Pat has over 15 years’ consulting experience and is an adjunct professor at Penn State University, where she teaches business courses. She is a former member of the Society for Human Resource Management’s Organizational Development Special Expertise Panel and currently is the local York, Pa. SHRM chapter certification instructor. Pat is a contributor to TheWashington Post employment column, “Ask the Expert.” She can be reached at pat@millerHR.com.

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